The San Francisco Chronicle said John Reed "excels in the realm of the strange". Reed is the author of four previous books, including Snowball's Chance and All the World's a Grave: A New Play by William Shakespeare. He teaches creative writing at the New School and Columbia University and is on the board of directors of the National Book Critics Circle.
His most recent title is Tales of Woe, published by MTV Press. The book is a compendium of true-life tragedies. However, Reed has done something subtly yet artistically important: instead of choosing tales that have a redeeming moral message or happy ending, he has deliberately chosen ones that do not. And he has done so for a morally serious reason: he wants to underline that life is sometimes brutally unfair. Justice, in other words, can be the result of how human beings do (or do not) organize their affairs as much as it can be the result of providential "forces".
I spoke with Reed by email and phone in August of this year.
FINN: Is the book partly an antidote to the Pollyanna-ish "arc" of so much contemporary culture? In other words, was it written in part to say, this is part of the truth of life on earth?
JOHN: That's it, exactly. Sin, suffering, redemption. That's the news, that's the movie, that's what they tell you to keep your hope alive, to keep you from accepting how much unhappiness there is, not only in your life, but in the world. It's not an accident, that story, it's a convenience of the class that own us. You'd think that model -- sin, suffering, redemption -- would make you feel better about life. Maybe it does for a few minutes, but it can't really help; you try to apply that model to your life, you'll meet with misery and resistance, because that model is bullshit.
Sometime during the crazy mid-1990s, young graffiti artist and Chicago activist William "Upski" Wimsatt wrote Bomb the Suburbs, one of the quintessential early Soft Skull books. The title was an attention grabber, though of course to "bomb" a place is to spray-paint your tag on a wall, and no call to violence was ever intended.
But a few more crazy years have passed since the mid-90s, and some places around the world really have gotten bombed -- Oklahoma City, New York City and the Pentagon, Iraq and Afghanistan -- and the title of Wimsatt's new book Please Don't Bomb The Suburbs (published, this time around, by Akashic) deals with these changes head-on. The author's introduction explains the conundrums he's faced:
I had nothing to do with the Oklahoma City bombing. It was 180 degrees opposite of my values and worldview. Yet suddenly, the title of my book wasn't so cute anymore. After September 11, it became even less cute.
Fast-forward to 2008. A lot of my friends were involved in the Obama campaign. I had been campaigning for social change for twenty years. This was the most exciting and important campaign of my lifetime. I was already volunteering. And one of my friends asked me to be on an advisory committee. Exciting. *Just send me your resume, you'll be vetted and then* --
Whoa, vetted. Forgot that part.
The minutes get shorter, the walls start to close in
Feels like the brain is hanging on but with clothes pins
I've hidden in the darkness for too long
I make it look all right but in the inside its so wrong
I want life to change but I don't know if it can
for a man or machine or whatever the fuck I am
I stand alone burned every bridge over the troubled water
No longer hiding from my personality disorder
-- Even Shadows Have Shadows
1. I first heard of Eyedea a couple of years ago from my son (who also tells me about Cage, Aesop Rock, Yak Ballz, Slug, etc.). The talented rapper from St. Paul, Minnesota suddenly died this weekend, at age 28. There's still no word about how it happened.
2. I really don't know what it means, probably nothing, that Eyedea was from Franzen country.
3. Was the Cadbury factory in Birmingham, England an inspiration for Roald Dahl's Wonka works?
"This is the best part of the trip, this is the trip, the best part" -- Jim Morrison, “The Soft Parade”
The final volume of A La Recherche du Temps Perdu, Time Regained, opens with a visit M. pays to newlyweds Gilberte and Robert de Saint-Loup at Tansonville, their estate in Combray. He takes long walks around the village with Gilberte, following the same paths that he took as a boy. Although Combray has remained unchanged, he is unable to recapture the pleasures of his childhood strolls. Then Gilberte astounds him by telling him that he can get to the Guermantes’ manor by taking the route that passes Méséglise – Swann’s way. M. has always believed the Guermantes way and Swann’s way to be irreconcilable; now he finds they are connected. His world is about to change, and many of his boyhood assumptions will be shattered.
M.’s interlude at Combray is brief. During his stay, Saint-Loup is away most of the time, ostensibly on business, but actually pursuing Morel; Gilberte makes herself up to look like Robert’s old mistress Rachel, in an attempt to win him back; and M. bemoans his lack of talent for literature. There is then a gap of several years, which M. spends in a sanatorium for his health. The story picks up again in Paris during World War I.
"Why the hell do I want to see a movie about Facebook?" a friend said about The Social Network, the new film about the geeky young entrepreneur who created Facebook. "Don't I get enough of it everywhere else?"
That might be the best reason not to see the movie, but it's quite a film, and possibly even a future classic (I bet it will get nominated for a few Academy Awards too). It's a serious movie that revolves around a moral question: what does it mean that everybody's favorite social network was built by an awkward, alienated college student who had lots of trouble making friends?
Those who resent Facebook's intrusion into our common privacy can enjoy some zuckerfreude here, because young Mark Zuckerberg's personality is splayed out in the most unflattering poses -- and yet he remains, in Jesse Eisenberg's deft impersonation, mostly charming and lovable. Unlike many of his fellow nerds who haunt the social circles around Harvard University during the movie's early scenes, skinny nervous Zuckerberg is naive but never quite shy. He has strange reservoirs of confidence, rooted perhaps in his mastery of Linux and Apache. He tries boldly to puzzle out the social codes -- attitude, style -- that lead to popularity on campus. But these are puzzles he can't seem to solve, and he is forced to face this uncomfortable truth repeatedly. The long journey of coding that ends with the creation of Facebook begins in a desultory dorm-room cloud of romantic misery after Zuckerberg's semi-girlfriend unceremoniously dumps him. Thus was Facebook born.
1. After a whole lot of passionate (and incorrect) guessing, Mario Vargas Llosa has won the 2010 Nobel Prize for Literature (the dapper fellow above just announced it on a live webcast from Stockholm). I must admit that, while I once enjoyed hearing from this Peruvian novelist at a New York reading with Umberto Eco and Salman Rushdie, I don't know much about his work as a whole. I'm looking forward to learning more. And, yeah, I do wish Ngugi wa Thiong'o had taken it. Maybe next year.
2. A Ted Hughes poem dealing directly with his wife Sylvia Plath's suicide has been revealed for the first time.
3. I like Julie Taymor and I really like William Shakespeare's The Tempest, so I'm pretty psyched about a new Julie Taymor film of The Tempest, starring Helen Mirren as a female Prospero, along with the likes of Russell Brand and Alan Cumming in various roles.
Michael Largo is the author of "Final Exits: The Illustrated Encyclopedia of How We Die", "Genius and Heroin: The Illustrated Catalogue of Creativity, Obsession, and Reckless Abandon Through the Ages" and "God's Lunatics: Lost Souls, False Prophets, Martyred Saints, Murderous Cults, Demonic Nuns, and Other Victims of Man's Eternal Search for the Divine". I was curious about the human being behind these unique books, and recently got a chance to ask the author a few questions.
Levi: I've enjoyed three of your books, but I don't know the first thing about you. Can you please fill me in on who you are, and how you became a writer and an alternative encyclopedist?
Michael: I became a writer because books captivate me. Gripped not only by words, or by certain authors’ lives, I like the very idea of what a book is. From earliest memories, I always had a book to read and at least a few in waiting. I read, and still do, anything and everything. But there were certain books that became better, or at least more interesting when I learned of the authors’ backgrounds, how they lived, wrote, and died. Hemmingway, London, Poe, Keats, Thoreau, D.H. Lawrence, Colette, Kerouac -- no matter the consensus on their works, all had intriguingly perilous biographies that hooked me when I was a teen: If you lived intensely, it might be possible to one day write a book people would read. Many have this idea; however, what turns a reader, even an avid one, into a writer is something different. I believe it has to do with the desire to defy death. With books, you can read the ideas of a writer who lived long ago, know of his or her life, and in theory, make them immortal. To become a writer I obviously had to write and keep writing even when everyone said to give up, get a regular job. Like most writers, I have a huge file of single sheet rejection letters. Persistence has to be a writer’s most consistent virtue. I wrote my first poem after reading e. e. cummings, and was deceived into thinking it was simple to break all the rules. I grew up in Staten Island, New York; back when it was a countrified suburb, and I had a relatively “normal” childhood, one that any kid of a New York City homicide detective might have. I got a B.A. at Brooklyn College, back when Clarence Major, Peter Spielberg, absurdist playwright Jack Gelber, and John Ashbery were teaching writing there. I had a chapbook of poetry, Nails in Soft Wood (Piccadilly Press) published in 1975, and a novel called Southern Comfort (New Earth Books), a few years later. I lived in the East Village during the 70s and 80s, was heavily involved in the small press scene, and edited a few lit magazines, most notably New York Poetry. I got a grant from the New York State Council of the Arts for fiction. I kept publishing or posting poetry and fiction when the Internet sprung up. (Here’s a sample of one in The 2River View.)
Sometimes I feel lazy. Sometimes I don't have a whole blog post in me. Sometimes I just want to show you some literary links.
1. Documents newly discovered in Penzance, England (hidden perhaps by pirates?) indicate for the first time that Victor Hugo based his Hunchback of Notre Dame on a real hunchbacked sculptor hired to work on the great church's restoration. The documents describe a Monsieur Trajan, or Mon Le Bossu, as a "worthy, fatherly and amiable man" who did not like to socialize with the other restoration workers.
3. Oxford University Press wants you to adopt a word. They've got lots of unwanted words, and they'll all be put down if you don't.
(All writers have to break through barriers, but few have to face the kind that Claudia Moscovici struggled with to produce her first novel, Velvet Totalitarianism, which Ken Kalfus calls "a taut political thriller, a meditation on totalitarianism, an expose of the Ceausescu regime, and a moving fictionalized memoir of one family's quest for freedom". Even in the changed atmosphere of today's Eastern Europe, publishers like Curtea Veche struggle with repression of various kinds (note: this page is in Romanian, but Google auto-translate works pretty well). I asked Claudia to share with Litkicks readers her story -- how she managed to become a writer, why she wrote this book, and what she thinks literature means to Romania. Here's her story. -- Levi)
My first novel, Velvet Totalitarianism, took me about ten years to write. It took me so long partly because I wrote this book while also teaching literature and philosophy, writing scholarly books and raising a family. It took me a long time to write it also because I had to do a lot of historical research for it. When one works for so long on one book, the interrelated questions of motivation and intended audience become all the more relevant. As I was writing Velvet Totalitarianism, I asked myself often: why write historical fiction about the Cold War, an era which is now relegated mostly to history books? Why is the history of Romanian communism so important to me and whom do I hope to touch in writing fiction about it? An anecdote brought these questions into sharper focus.
Bad Marie is a funny yet strangely haunting new novel by Marcy Dermansky. The hero of the book swipes the husband and young child of one of her only friends for a romp in Paris. She meets several movie stars, stays in very fancy hotels, and ends up flying back across the ocean to barge in on a family that hates her in one of the poorest sections of Mexico. Despite the fun Marie's having, the narrative dwells hilariously on everything she encounters that annoys her. Through it all, though, she never neglects to change a diaper that needs changing, and by the end of the book Marie seems to have even grown up a bit herself. I had a chance to ask the author of this enigmatic new hit novel a few questions. Off we go:
Levi: Bad Marie certainly is "bad", at least by any rational standard. She gets fired from her nanny job and then steals the baby, along with clothes, a husband or two and some credit cards. And yet, she is clearly a sympathetic and likable character. Are you trying to deliver a philosophical message about the relativity of good and evil, or what?